Venezuela: a Tale of Two Presidents

The country currently finds itself with two self-proclaimed leaders, each claiming legitimacy

Photograph of one of the many protests in Venezuela yesterday

1/24/2019- Joshua Collins

Thursday morning Venezuelans woke up to two Presidents, each claiming lawful power over and the country and each with international backing. Nicolas Maduro is in the midst of fighting off a full-blown rebellion, and yes I would call it that at this point. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening yesterday he received messages of support from Bolivia, China, Russia and Cuba. But more critically, he seems to still have control over the Venezuelan military. Juan Guiado, leader of the opposition party and self-proclaimed President of Venezuela also (yes, I realize this is starting to seem like a Game of Thrones episode) dramatically announced himself lawful president yesterday, proclaiming Maduro an "usurper" (yeah, I know it sounds even more like Game of Thrones now). Guiado has hundreds of thousands of supporters in the streets all over Venezuela, and has secured international backing from dozens of countries, including the United States, Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile and more (12 countries in total). Some low-level military officers, particularly from the Venezuelan National Guard have also announced their support for Guiado. 

In order to understand what prompted this crisis one needs understand what is happening in Venezuela. The monthly minimum wage there is $7 USD, which is insufficient to buy more than a few days of food. Maduro is wildly unpopular and recently won a second term as president in elections that were considered by the international community to be wildly fraudulent, and which the opposition party boycotted. The health system there is completely non-functional, and the security situation is untenable. There are massive food shortages and their currency, the Bolivar is effectively worthless with an inflation rate of roughly a million percent.

 

The reasons for this are varied, and while international sanctions are certainly not helping, they are far from the prime cause for the economic crisis, despite claims to contrary from the Maduro regime. The real causes are more complex- an undiversified economy dependant on oil prices that has been devastated by a drop in crude prices, currency manipulation that  incentivizes wealthy individuals  and military officials to buy dollars at a discounted rate in order to trade them for a profit on the black market (resulting in massive capital flight from the country), gross mismanagement, and corruption. Maduro has put the military in charge of large swaths of the government, including the state run oil company, PDVSA, in an attempt to keep them loyal. This has led to massive inefficiency and nepotism as officials try to pocket as much money as they can for themselves and their allies before the entire system collapses, which at this point seems inevitable .

Which brings us to the revolt. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets on the 61st anniversary of an uprising that overthrew the Venezuelan dictator General Marcos Perez Jimenez. And they took to the streets not only in opposition areas, but in regions that have historically been strongholds of Maduro support, such as Caracas. It is among this backdrop that Guiado made his self-appointed claim to be president of Venezuela, using an article of the Constitution that allows the assembly leader to assume the presidency in case of an absent president. But all of that is generally theoretical as long as Maduro remains in power. 

So what the fuck is going on in Venezuela? Who is the President?

Well, what the fuck is going on is a full-blown rebellion. And as for who is the President, that depends on who you ask. But as long as Maduro has the support of the Venezuelan military, he isn't going anywhere. So the question becomes, does the opposition party have the lasting power and enough support from the people to force the issue? And can this be resolved peacefully? And the answers to those questions is that no one knows. 

Juan Guiado, President of Venezuela speaks to supports yesterday in Caracas, Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro, also President of Venezuela, speaks to supporters yesterday in Caracas, Venezuela

Coverage of the events on the ground have been all over the map from english-speaking media. From the milquetoast "We will just have to see how events develop" to the hysterical "We are on the verge of WWIII!!! Trump is going to Invade Venezuela!!!". And while Trump has been putting forth plenty of characteristic bluster and Mike Pompeo's twitter feed seems to have become dedicated to platitudes about "Democracy in Venezuela" with sprinklings of kindergarten spanish, it seems more relevant to focus on what is happening between the factions on the ground within Venezuela itself. Russia and China have decried the nations recognizing Guiado as "Interfering in the affairs of Venezuela", but it is extremely improbable that the situation will escalate to an international military conflict. So. breathe. This will play out depending almost entirely on whether the Military decides to stick with Maduro or not, as we stated above. 

Coverage in the Latin American press has generally been a bit more nuanced.  Although the spectrum of responses shares an emotional range with their english-speaking counterparts. Leftist media organizations are generally decrying US influence as "Imperialism" and a power-play to control a region rich in resources. (Venezuela has the largest known oil-reserves in the world as well as considerable gold deposits).  They paint Juan Guiado as a power-hungry pawn of western countries as they attempt to continue economic neo-colonization of South America. More Centrist sources point to the fact that Juan Guiado has absolutely no official power, and is a non-elected leader. And although they view the administration on Nicolas Maduro as illegitimate, they repeat the point that as long as he controls the military, the police and the security forces of Venezuela, Guiado is virtually irrelevant. 

Right-wing organizations talk of ending the evils of "Socialism" and "Standing with the people", calling for Maduro to step down peacefully. They point out that Guaido has international support and hundreds of thousands of supporters in the streets. And they call for an end to the very real humanitarian crisis on the ground in Venezuela. (Where the minimum wage is roughly $7 a month and that is sufficient to buy food for only a few days). According to the UN, 3.6 million Venezuelans have fled the country and thousands more leave daily. But even the most extreme right-wing organizations here call for handling the situation peacefully. 

The Secretary of Defense of Venezuela and various high-level officials have all made televised appearances in recent days in an attempt to show Unity and strength. It seems at this point that the situation has shifted away from the streets and into the realm of diplomacy and courting world opinion. Venezuelans I speak to here are hopeful but reserved about the situation. All are vehemently opposed to Maduro, but they remain unconvinced that the party of Guiado can end the institutional corruption in Venezuela. Or that they even want to. They remember all too well a similar uprising in 2017 that was put down very violently by the regime and resulted in mass arrests of opposition leaders.

"I don't know what's going to happen" says Franchezka, a 31 year old Venezuelan living in Colombia "I just wish the government would stop killing my people, by bullets or by starvation."

It is quite possible that Maduro will decide to simply wait this one out. He seems (at least on the surface) to still be firmly in control of the Venezuelan military. But one thing is certain, if Guiado fails in his revolution, he is done in Venezuela. Political dissidents do not fare well there. And a darker possibility is that Maduro will simply decide to put down the rebellion with violence. 

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